Ottawa Citizen: Life at a minimum: A look at the lives of three people on the bottom rung of the wage ladder

Posted January 31, 2014
As anyone familiar with the price of a transit pass, pack of razor blades or dental X-ray should be able to compute, you cannot live on Ontario’s $10.25-an-hour minimum wage. Not really.
Exist? Maybe. If you’re single. And very frugal.
And even that hinges on a steady income, minimal though it may be, that can reassure landlords and allow you to carefully budget to cover the necessities and the inevitable surprises you dearly hope will not include an emergency visit to the dentist.
But as the three subjects of a Citizen examination of minimum-wage life will attest, such jobs rarely come with regular schedules. The hours will vary from day to day, week to week, as the low-margin employers that pay minimum wage react to the business pressures that spur them to keep the workforce lean.
The result? Earners in this bracket don’t budget. They have trouble finding places to stay, because landlords know from experience how likely they are to miss payments. They juggle bills and borrow and hope for better times, or at least better hours.
All of our subjects were nominated by Ottawa ACORN, an organization that has been outspoken in its campaigns for living wages, improved social assistance and similar causes. Their association with this activist group means they are more likely to be vocal about their situations, more inclined to share the personal details of their finances. It doesn’t — that we can tell — make them any less representative of those on the lowest income rung.
And, in Ottawa and elsewhere, more people are voicing a belief that low-earners have been left behind in the world’s slow recovery from the financial crisis and recession of the late 2000s. In some places, such as Switzerland and its discussion of a basic income for all citizens, it remains talk. In others — including the United States, where President Barack Obama is moving to raise the hourly minimum for workers on federal contracts to $10.10, and Ontario, where Premier Kathleen Wynne announced Thursday a 75-cent increase in the hourly minimum to $11 as of June 1 — the protests are getting some results, although nowhere near the increases some have called for.
In two of the financial snapshots here, spending eclipses income. Our subjects were unable to provide immediate details on how much, if anything, they receive from various government rebates for low-earners such as the working income tax or GST/HST benefits, so any such payments are not part of these calculations.
Even if they are receiving the maximum rebates, however, the amounts would not likely make a substantial difference in their financial pictures.
Pablo Bazaes
Security guard
Age: 32
Pablo Bazaes was and plans again to be a security guard. But until his training starts for a position with a new company, he’s on welfare.
In his last job he worked up to 30 hours a week, a number used for the calculation here. Then his employer lost some contracts and his hours slid to two 3.5-hour shifts a week at a building in Kanata, with two hours travel time each way from his south-side apartment.
Bazaes speaks four languages — French and English, plus the Spanish and Portuguese of his parents — but he never got a high school diploma, so his choices are limited. He smokes — a big drain on the little cash he has, he admits — and when he can, he buys a video game. “If I have no entertainment at home and then go to work where I have no entertainment, I’d probably go crazy,” he says.
Groceries come mainly from food banks, clothing from discards at the laundromat. “I found myself a nice pair of jeans there — they just give it away, like kind of a community thing.”
His girlfriend recently moved in. She’s pregnant, which is adding fuel to his hope of finding a security guard job where he can get regular hours and even advance. And beyond that?
“Maybe one day accomplish having my own company or managing something, having my own business of some sort, or — I don’t know — something to effectively change the world, but that’s just a dream, right?
Grace Iyobosa
Health-care support worker
Age: 41
“I have to stand on my own,” declares Grace Iyobosa, who came to Canada four years ago from Nigeria. “I want to be an independent woman. This is my struggle.”
As a health-care support worker, Iyobosa can get 40 hours a week, sometimes more. But the shifts come at short notice, so she needs a cellphone in addition to a land line for the apartment she shares with daughters ages 7 and 11.
She studied early childhood education at Algonquin College but hasn’t been able to find work in that field. So she continues in her hospital job, her priority raising her girls in a country she still believes offers them, and her, more opportunity.
There’s no child support, and when she works at night she needs to pay a sitter. She hasn’t visited a food bank for two years, she says, because she believes people with jobs shouldn’t use such services.
And if the numbers in her financial statement don’t add up — don’t come close to adding up — that means some bills aren’t getting paid.
But they will, she says.
Ben Diaz
Store clerk, student
Age: 24
Unlike so many of his peers, Ben Diaz is earning a university degree without amassing debt. He got a boost from a fund his mother opened when he was small, and he’s spread his anthropology studies at Carleton University over seven years, working as many part-time hours as he can find to cover tuition and living expenses.
Since Christmas, however, his $11.30-an-hour job as a sales clerk has been cut to two shifts a week. He’s looking for other work, and to gain experience and make contacts, he’s serving unpaid internships for a political party.
Diaz shares a house with two roommates. His parents pay half of his phone bill and help with groceries, but he often has to draw on the campus food bank.
“It’s not exactly healthy food, it’s like, KD for dinner again,” he says. “You know, the joke of the typical student diet.”
With graduation approaching, he’s thinking about studying nursing at Algonquin College. He admires nurses, and he likes the idea of helping people “in a very personal and impactful way.”
The nursing course, however, would mean another two years of scratching to buy Tylenol when he’s sick, and getting his hair cut short and letting it grow long to spread out the cost of haircuts.
“That would be two more years of school,” he agrees, speaking the words slowly.
On the other side of the minimum-wage paycheque is Steve Mastoras, third-generation proprietor of the Whistler’s Grille restaurant in east-end Toronto.
When Ontario’s minimum wage rises to $11 for general work and $9.55 for alcohol servers, Mastoras expects his yearly labour bill to rise by $30,000 to $50,000 — no small sum, he says, in an industry where profits are tight.
“After June 1 I can tell you, small businesses are going to be re-evaluating their hiring practices, they’re going to be re-evaluating their competitiveness and their labour costs as their only controllable expense, and they’re going to be re-evaluating the future success of their businesses — and the ability to stay in business,” he warns.
Mastoras, as an articulate critic of wage increases he believes are ordered for their political value, is regularly called upon by the Canadian Federation of Independent Business to explain its side of the issue.
“It’s a very complex question,” he says. “And it’s not one that should be addressed by political tactics that don’t genuinely take into consideration the adverse long-term effect this is going to have.”
Mastoras believes people can earn a living on minimum wage if they get sufficient shifts. At his family-owned restaurant and banquet hall, “we’re doing our best to give them a full complement of hours.”
Like others, he suggests other economic measures could have more success in reducing poverty than hiking the minimum wage. Instead, the hikes could increase poverty by cutting the number of jobs available in a sector that is among Canada’s top employers, and the single largest provider of first jobs at a time of high unemployment for young people.
“Young people get their first-time jobs in our sector of the economy, in our industry, because, you know, we have the opportunity to employ them at a competitive rate,” he says.
“There are a lot of elements to this that a lot of folks don’t take into consideration.”


Article by Robert Bostelaar for the Ottawa Citizen